As widely expected, the arrival of Joe Biden to power changed already strained Turkish-American relations for the worse. Last month Biden recognized the Armenian genocide and that are clear indications Turkey will not be invited to a summit of Democracies the Biden administration is planning this summer in Washington.

The contrast between Trump and Biden could not be starker as far as Erdogan’s access to the White House is concerned. Under Trump Erdogan was one the few foreign leaders who was put through directly to the President on the phone according to directives from the president himself. Erdogan was reported to sometimes call Trump twice a week.[1] With Biden, Erdogan had to wait almost six months to receive a call back after his congratulations to the president-elect in mid-November 2020.

In a conversation with a senior Biden administration official, I learned that Biden was scheduled to call Erdogan in late March. But apparently, he was angered by Erdogan’s accusatory words of Biden in defense of Putin being called a killer and changed his mind. [2]

As a result, Biden’s call came just the day before his recognition of the Armenian genocide. Biden became the first American President to officially recognize the1915 massacres of Ottoman Armenians as a “genocide.” Former presidential always reneged on their pledge to Armenian-Americans because of Turkey’s geostrategic importance as a NATO ally. So why is Biden is keeping his campaign promise to recognize the genocide when his predecessors carefully avoid so after assuming the presidency?

The short answer is that Turkey’s geo-strategic importance as NATO ally has greatly diminished in the last few years for two major reasons. First, the Turkish decision to buy Russian missile defense systems despite strong American and NATO objections. Second, the Pentagon and especially CENTCOM is no longer a strong advocate of Ankara because of serious problems encountered in northern Syria.

There are additional problems on the agenda:

  • Turkey is already under a de facto military embargo by the United States as it is now subject to CAATSA sanctions (Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) because of its purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems,
  • Ankara has been kicked out from the F-35 joint strike fighter production program
  • It can no longer purchase the fifth generation stealth fighter and is reportedly considering Russian Su-35 and Su-57 fighter aircrafts.
  • A Turkish public bank is facing billions of dollars in penalty for violating Iran sanctions
  • Fetullah Gulen, the alleged leader of the 2016 failed coup is in the United States and not facing extradition to Turkey despite Ankara’s demand.

When one considers this long list, the divergence between Turkey and the US in Syria is by far the most significant item because a fundamental difference in dealing with an existential threat for both parties. The fact that Ankara and Washington could not agree on who this existential threat is – let alone how to address it – created a so far irreparable crisis of confidence in Turkish-American relations.

From Strategic Partnership to Strategic Rivalry in the Middle East

Under the operational guidance of CENTCOM commander Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon and Brett McGurk at the State Department, Washington forged a tactical alliance with the Syrian Kurds against ISIS, which culminated with the defeat of this terrorist pseudo-state in 2018 under the Trump administration. In the meantime, as soon as the Syrian uprising began Turkey forged a tactical cooperation of its own with radical Islamist groups against the regime in Damascus, including with entities such as the Al Nusra Front and even elements within ISIS.

The picture Syria provided about the state of Turkish-American relations was abundantly clear. The two NATO allies were no longer just in a disagreement about who the terrorists were. They were actively supporting each other’s existential terrorist threat. Compartmentalization of problems had thus become impossible under such unprecedented conditions.

From 2017 to 2020 despite overall good relations on the surface between Erdogan and Trump relations between Ankara and Washington continued to deteriorate. Under Trump, Turkey finalized its purchase of the S-400 Russian missile defense, witnessed the strengthening of Kurdish-American military cooperation in Syria and the opening of the HALKBANK case about Turkish violations of Iran sanctions, failed to secure the extradition of Fetullah Gulen, and was targeted with CAATSA (Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Acts) sanctions aimed at the Turkish military industry.

Under Biden, we are off to a bad start. In addition to waiting for months to call Erdogan only to inform him of his decision to recognize the Armenian Genocide, Biden is working with a foreign policy team that has put the tactical alliance with the Syrian Kurds together. Former CENTCOM commander Lloyd Austin, who has a very low opinion of Turkish pro-Islamist strategies in Syria, is now Secretary of Defense. Brett McGurk who has been a strong advocate of not only a tactical but also a strategic partnership with the Syrian Kurds is Biden’s top Middle-East adviser at the National Security Council. And Anthony Blinken had no problems calling Turkey a “so-called strategic partner” during his confirmation hearings earlier this year.[3]

What is next?

The Kurdish-American partnership is on hold in Syria. The Biden team and CENTCOM are still in favor of maintaining some symbolic troop presence in Syria. This situation indicates that they have no intention of ending the cooperation with the YPG. Continued Kurdish-American partnership does not bode well for the “confidence crisis” in Turkish-American relations.

On the other hand, CAATSA sanctions are in still in place and the US still insists on Turkey not using the S-400s. As a compromise, the Americans asked Turkey to station the S-400s in the Incirlik Air base used by the US Air Force.[4] After all, the Russian system which has a very advanced technology is of great interest to Americans. This offer has been refused by Erdogan for two reasons. First, handing it to Americans would have violated the terms with Russia. Second, Erdogan wants to deploy them for his own protection, near his presidential palace in Ankara, in case of another military coup attempt against his regime where F-16s could be used by the Turkish Air Force.

What about the latest development with Biden on the Armenian front. What is quite interesting is the fact that Erdogan decided not to over-react to Biden’s recognition of the Armenian genocide. Despite predictions, he did not even temporarily recall the Turkish Ambassador in Washington. There are three potential explanations for his behavior.

The most obvious one is his hope of having a good meeting with Biden in June at the NATO summit. Biden expressed his willingness to have a bilateral meeting and Erdogan is keen on broaching the issue of Halkbank, the state-owned bank in trial for busting Iran sanction at the Southern District New York. This is how Erdogan operated with Trump who often overpromised and underdelivered. Erdogan seems determined to continue his efforts to influence the American justice system with the new American President. Such efforts are likely to fail and Halkbank is likely to be fined billions of dollars. The eventual amount will be determined both by the court and the U.S. Treasury Department. Erdogan wants to engage in damage control with Biden and is willing to adopt a soft approach before his meeting with him next month.

The second explanation behind Erdogan’s silence is the dismal state of the Turkish economy. He simply does not want to create more turmoil in Turkish financial markets and cause further depreciation of the Turkish Lira with another political crisis with Washington. There are also rumors Erdogan wants to call early elections – instead of waiting until 2023 – because time is not on his side as the economy worsens and the opposition parties gain more strength.

Finally, Erdogan came to the realization that the Armenian Genocide recognition was in part a consolation effort from Washington to Yerevan which has lost Nagorno-Karabagh to Azerbaijan this summer. The language of the White House declaration is also conducive to shield the modern republic by blaming the whole affair on the Ottoman Empire. Such language can help Turkey in the case of legal demands from the Armenian diaspora for financial compensation.

Erdogan once again proved he can be pragmatic. He has realized that Turkish-American relations under Biden can easily deteriorate. He is engaged in damage control and crisis management. His charm offensive with the Middle East is part of the same strategy to prioritize the Turkish economy rather than ideological priorities. Ultimately, he wants to win another election and the economy is key for a difficult victory. He wants to prove to Western, particularly European investors, as well as to potential capital from the Gulf that Turkey is a rational actor.

Endnotes

[1] https://www.businessinsider.com/erdogan-reportedly-called-trump-as-much-as-twice-week-cnn-2020-6

[2] https://www.businessinsider.com/turkey-erdogan-says-its-unacceptable-biden-called-putin-a-killer-2021-3

[3] https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/us-secretary-state-nominee-calls-nato-ally-turkey-so-called-strategic-partner-2021-01-19/

[4] Information obtained and confirmed by author with senior Turkish and American officials.

 

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